Emotional Payoff of Games

Games are challenging. So why do people challenge themselves voluntarily for the sake of entertainment? It's the emotional payoff they offer; mastering its formula is the key to great games.

Flappy Bird has captured something about games that we all know and experience with each game we feel compelled to play. We talk often describe this under the moniker of "addiction," but that doesn't fully represent the details of what games like FB or Dots do to us when we play them.

Deceptive Simplicity and Self-Blame

Flappy Bird starts out hard. Unapologetically hard. The first "hurdle" of pipes may take a player four or five attempts to surpass. But those first few failures don't compel us to stop, they compel so many players to try again. And again. Why?

Flappy Bird

FB has such simple gameplay, and it's so simple to grasp the problem, that we know we can win. Players believe so strongly that they can just tap a few times to get that cursed, stupid little bird to fly between the pipes, but their confidence is soon deflated. But because it seems so simple, the player secretly blames himself/herself for Flappy's failures: "I should have tapped sooner. Next time I will." That simple self-blame, or perhaps compelling responsibility, sets off a series of problem-seeking reactions, repeating the same action again and again, a moment of temporary insanity, believing that each attempt will be just different enough for a win.

The Thrill of Success

Once the problem builds, the hook is set when Flappy finally makes the hurdle, swooping between the pipes and soaring straight into the next pipe, dying yet another head-first death. But the emotional payoff is huge. The player's success is not a hurdle achieved, but the validation of his previous assumption, "If I'd just tapped when he was closer to the lower pipe, I'd get it." After minutes of agonizing defeat, the player achieves success, with another defeat quickly following.

But this doesn't come close to disheartening the player, far from it. Soon after, the "I can do it" feeling sets in and is quickly replaced by "I can do it again." The cycle of "gamer's addiction" ensues.

Control versus Randomness

Games like this hinge on a balance between the player's perceived control and the frustration offered by randomness. In moments of frustration, the player may begin to believe the game is working against him, as if the randomized threw a hurdle too steep for Flappy to climb.

This is more apparent in games like Dots, Candy Crush, or Threes, wherein the player's success often depends on that next random piece dropped from above. "Why won't it give me a red one?!" Yet it doesn't matter. We keep playing, game after game, because we believe that we're in control, that we can somehow "beat the system." After more successes, this evidence of our increasing skill leads us to believe we can surmount even more difficult problems, and we thus believe in ourselves that much more.

Little Wins

Ultimately, "little wins" are the essence of these games. Each win is a jolt of validation, a reinforcement of our belief that we can be better than others or even ourselves. They compel us to try again, keep going, and take responsibility for navigating the situation that a clever game designer has created for us. We have succumbed to addiction. Enjoy it.

How would you break down the gaming experience?